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Werewolves: the Basics

The name “werewolf” comes from the Germanic/Old English “were” meaning “man” and “wolf” meaning…wolf. A werewolf then, is a man who can change into wolf form, most commonly once a month during the full moon. The moon has been considered the second most powerful object in the sky (after the sun), and the full moon is especially associated with wild behavior (hence “lunacy” from the latin “luna”).

True werewolves are often mixed up with shapeshifters, especially in fiction today, but there are key differences. Werewolves change into wolves after being bitten or scratched and their change is dictated by the moon—usually during the full moon. Shapeshifters, on the other hand, can take the form of the wolf, and usually have more control over the transformation, although most still feel the influence of the moon. Shapeshifting is often genetic, being passed through generations.

In recent years, the way someone becomes a werewolf has become more flexible, and the term is used interchangeably with shapeshifters. Depending on the story, a person can change at will, or during the entire week of the full moon, or based on temperature. Becoming a werewolf is just as varied now too. Where once you had to be bitten or scratched, it can now be transferred by birth or even magical spell. Werewolves were once considered only to be male, but now female werewolves are nearly as common.

Werewolves are often immortal in that they will not die of old age, but can usually be killed by silver bullets. Some can be killed by decapitation or mercury, but silver seems to be the most popular. Crosses are used occasionally, but they were never as popular against werewolves as they are for vampires.

History of the Myth

Wolves are an important part of every culture that they live in, though their influence differs depending on the civilization. According to legend, the founder of Rome, Romulus, and his brother Remus, were abandoned at birth, but saved and suckled by a female wolf. The Egyptians had many head of an animal, body of a man type gods, including the jackel (a wild African dog) headed god of the Underworld, Anubis. Werewolves myths exist everywhere wolves do, but the most well known legends are from Europe and North America. Native Americans respected the wolves presence (although they were cautious) while the Europeans feared and actively hunted them.

The oldest recorded myth is the story of the Greek Lycaon, who refused to worship Zeus. When Zeus came to confront the man, Lycaon slaughtered a slave (some stories report that it was a child) and tried to serve the flesh to Zeus for dinner (cannibalism was a horrible sin), and then attempted to murder the god in his sleep to disprove his immortality. Zeus punished him by changing his form, and every month during the full moon he became a blood-thirsty wolf.

The Native American myths are more fluid than their European counterparts. Some tribes believe they are decended from wolves, and their shapeshifters are not malevolent. Other stories range from general shapeshifters that can be malicious; they include skinwalkers, Rougarou (which is also a term for a more Bigfoot-like creature, depending on which part of North America you’re in) to Loup Garou in Louisiana, to people who change only into wolves and eat humans.

Fear of werewolves reached a fever pitch during the middle ages, culminating in werewolf hunting and trials in Germany and France, especially. The time period followed right on the heels of the European witch trials. Nearly 30,000 people were tried and killed in France alone. Even after the hysteria and trials ended, the myth persisted. From 1764 to 1767, a vicious animal attacked and killed 102 villagers in the French village of Gevaudan. The victims, mostly women and children, were mauled and decapitated, their naked bodies all bearing the bite marks of a non-human creature. The killings mark the largest number of alleged werewolf attacks in history and are the basis of the Hollywood Wolfman legend. The History Channel even sent a Cryptozoologist and a Criminal Profiler to the area in the documentary “The Real Wolfman”, which aired in 2009.

Scientific Origins?

Like vampires, the possible origins of werewolf myths are varied. They could have originated to explain mysterious deaths or early serial killings; to keep people from venturing out at night (when the elements were the most serious threat), or to scare children into behaving. Werewolves were also an explanation for sickly children born to strong parents–usually because of a curse or sins the parents must have committed. Other theories include rabies (both in humans and wolves—although wolves with rabies usually die within a matter of days) and the disease hypertrichosis, which causes excessive hair growth that in some cases can cover the entire body. Fear of wolves was obviously a huge factor as well.

As humans began to cut down forests for agricultural reasons, they began to have run-ins with wolves. Wolves were often demonized because they would attack livestock or hunt in the areas occupied by humans. Unlike other wild animals (bears, for instance) wolves usually show curiosity rather than fear in the face of other predators (like people). Humans noticed parallels between themselves and wolves, including their intelligence and social habits, giving the leap to human-wolf myths credibility. Add to that fear of the unknown and harshness of the wilderness without competition for food between the two species, and it is no wonder that wolves have been given a bloodthirsty (however undeserved) reputation.

Modern Reincarnations

Some people believe that werewolves truly exist in some form or another today. The most well known in America is the Beast of Bray Road in Wisconsin, which has been investigated on television in episodes of Monster Quest and Destination: Truth.

Werewolves have had a resurgence in popular fiction in recent years as well. The most popular seem to be the movie series Underworld (they’re called Lycans here), the movie The Wolfman with Benicio Del Toro, the Harry Potter Series (Professor Lupin), and the books Blood and Chocolate (Loup Garou), The Twilight Saga (shapeshifters) and Shiver (the Wolves of Mercy Falls series—also shapeshifters). The biggest change has been the shift from horrific monster, to romantic protagonist. However you like you’re werewolves, there’s something for everyone.

What do you think of werewolves? What is your favorite werewolf movie? Join us in the discussion!